A newspaper story claiming adult asylum seekers were lying about their age and being placed in schools with 11-year-olds were unsubstantiated and significantly misleading, the Independent Press Standards Organisation has held.
IPSO's complaints committee partially upheld a complaint from a councillor about a Kentish Gazette (Canterbury and District) story headlined "Refugees spark pupil safety fears", which was published in print and online on 16 October 2014.
Councillor Perkins complained that the piece breached clauses 1 (accuracy), 4 (harassment), 6 (covering children), and 12 (discrimination), of the Editors' Code of Practice.
IPSO upheld the accuracy side of the complaint.
The story reported concerns in the Kent area that unaccompanied male asylum-seekers were "lying" about their ages and "being placed in schools" with 11-year-old children.
It said men in their 20s were being dishonest about their ages, attributing this assertion to "head teachers in Canterbury".
Sub-headlines on the newspaper's front page had said "asylum seekers lie about age to get themselves educated", and that "men in their 20s [are] being placed in schools with 11-year-olds".
The article included direct quotations from head teachers. One said schools had been told to expect pupils "who were 15 or 16 only to find they were clearly 20 or 21", and that "sometimes there is doubt about where [the pupils] have come from, and even what age they are"; another commented that "while many of these are genuine cases… a minority are not".
Two head teachers quoted also referred to "safeguarding concerns". The matter was reported in the wider context of an "immigration crisis" in the county.
Councillor Perkins said the coverage was inaccurate as there was no proof that asylum seekers had been lying about their age, nor had any adults of 20 been placed in schools with pupils aged 11.
None of the head teachers quoted in the article had confirmed that there were pupils enrolled at their schools who had lied about their ages, nor had they expressed concerns about safety.
Councillor Perkins said he had spoken to County Council officials who had said that there were only two cases over a number of years in which unaccompanied asylum seekers were found to be older than originally thought. Neither was 20, and neither was placed in a school with 11-year-olds.
Furthermore, there were only ten unaccompanied asylum-seeker children in Kent this academic year, with just three placed in Canterbury.
It was also inaccurate to say that there was "an immigration crisis engulfing Kent", he said.
He also objected to the use of a stock image of adult asylum seekers to illustrate the article, saying it was misleading.
He also complained that the headline was discriminatory towards those seeking asylum, that the article intruded into the time at school of the children mentioned, and that it amounted to the harassment and intimidation of orphaned children legitimately placed in Kent schools.
The newspaper said its coverage was an accurate report on a matter of major public interest, which had potential implications for the well being of pupils.
It said that on the record comments by local head teachers, quoted in the article, supported the claims made. The article had also cited a representative from Kent County Council, who had made reference to "very rare cases where asylum-seeking children have been found to be older than the age they claimed".
While every case was different, it was not inaccurate to state that some asylum seekers who had given a false age were "lying", it said.
Use of the stock image was not misleading, it said, noting that it had chosen not to illustrate the story with photographs of children in the relevant schools, because doing so would clearly have raised a breach of the Code.
It said that it was entitled to describe the situation with asylum-seekers at Calais as a "crisis".
The newspaper also drew attention to the fact that, after publishing the story, it had printed a number of readers' letters opposing the views expressed in its coverage.
IPSO's complaints committee said the Editors' Code recognised that "protecting public health and safety" formed part of the public interest which journalism may serve.
The protection of children was a matter of particular importance, and a legitimate subject of investigation, it said, adding: "The newspaper was entitled to examine the concerns which had been drawn to its attention, and to ask local head teachers for comment to establish whether there was a safety risk to children in the county."
It went on: "The article had included extensive comment from head teachers and a council representative making reference to the difficulties of establishing the ages of unaccompanied asylum seekers, and to rare occurrences of adults applying for school places.
"But these comments did not support the newspaper's statement, as fact, that 'men in their 20s are lying about [their] age and going to schools'; nor did the newspaper subsequently provide any material to corroborate this prominent assertion.
"This was a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1 (i). The claims in the front page sub-headlines were not substantiated, and in the context of a report which made reference to safety concerns, these were significantly misleading. This aspect of the complaint was upheld."
But it said the reference to an "immigration crisis" in Kent was a statement of opinion on the part of the newspaper, which was entitled to present its position that there was a "crisis".
The Committee acknowledged the newspaper's position that it used stock photographs with the article partly out of concern for the privacy of local children who might attend one of the schools concerned. While Councillor Perkins considered that the photograph used with the story was misleading, the newspaper had not said the men pictured were those who had allegedly been placed in schools. It was entitled to illustrate its story in this way.
The issues raised under Clauses 4 (harassment) , 6 (cover of children) and 12 (discrimination) were not considered.
The committee said Clause 4 generally related to the conduct of journalists during the news-gathering process, and was intended to offer protection to identified individuals who are the subject of media attention. It did not usually address the way in which newspapers chose to cover stories.
The concerns under Clause 6 and Clause 12 were general, did not relate to any specific individuals, and did not engage the terms of these clauses.
But the committee said the breach of the Code it had established was sufficiently serious to require publication of an adverse adjudication, as opposed to a correction.
It specified the form of the adjudication, and said that as the original coverage was page 1, and continued on pages 8 and 9, the adjudication should appear in print on page 9, with a page 1 reference directing readers to this page.
The adjudication should also appear on kentonline.co.uk and a link to it, containing the headline, should also appear on the website's homepage for a period of no less than 48 hours. The adjudication must then be archived, and remain searchable, on kentonline.co.uk in the usual way.